When the growing season ends, sheep generally eat hay. You can buy “Sheep Chow” in a bag at the farm stores, but honestly, nobody who is serious about keeping sheep as a business would go that route; it is very expensive and not really what sheep were meant to eat. I don’t know many sheep who can open a bag, nor pour the contents out to help themselves to a meal. Vegetation, either fresh and harvested by the sheep themselves, or dry and tied into manageable bales, is the very best feed for sheep. There are times when their total nutritional needs can’t be easily met by harvested hay, and that’s when we supplement with a bit of grain, but their diet is mostly green plants, either fresh or dried and baled, all year ’round.
With a flock as big as ours (40-50 ewes, about a dozen or so rams, and four guardian llamas), we go through a lot of hay through the non-growing months of the year. We used to bring the needed hay in small loads at various times of the year, but found that there are multiple advantages to buying all of the hay we need as it comes out of the fields. First, the price is a bit lower since our hay guys don’t have to double handle it, unloading it into their barns, and then once again loading it onto their hay wagons to come and then unload it into our barns.
Secondly, we get to see exactly how the hay looks. Hay isn’t all the same – its nutritional value is determined by the type, exactly when it was cut (was it beginning to flower yet, or was it past flowering and going to seed?), and how it was dried. Even the best hay guys (and I would include our source in this group – they’ve been doing this for at least three generations!) can’t always make the very best hay – they do the best they can, but are dependent upon the weather and other factors that they can’t control. Knowing what I will be working with in advance helps me to know whether I will need to supplement with grain earlier than we usually do, or whether the hay is good enough that we will only need to provide additional energy during lactation.
Finally, if our hay has all been purchased and loaded into our barns before the end of the growing season, I don’t have to worry that something will happen and I won’t have it when I need it. There won’t be a snowstorm that prevents them from getting here when we run out, and there won’t be any mistakes with other people accidentally buying what I need for my sheep. Knowing that I have my hay in for the entire winter means that there is one less thing that I need to worry about when it comes to the flock. We might freeze, and we might have less lambs, but they will have what hay they need all winter long!
The trick then is figuring out how much hay I want to buy and where we will put it all when they begin to cut and bale it. For the past seventeen years, I have figured our hay needs with pen and paper in three different ways. Each method gives me a little different number, so when I am done, I need to decide between the three – and I generally choose the highest of the options. We get both second cutting grass hay that we use as the baseline feed for rams, unbred ewes, and early stages of gestation, and also alfalfa hay for our high nutrition group and the ewes during late gestation and lactation. The bales generally weigh 35-45 pounds each, and we need about 38 tons of hay by the time we are finished loading it in.
About a week or so ago, we got our alfalfa hay into the Sheep Barn where we store it for use later in the season. As I finished my coffee this morning, my grass hay arrived on seven hay wagons, some stacked eight feet high. About sixteen years ago, Rick bought a conveyor from a friend for $35, and I remember giving him a hard time for spending the money for something I wasn’t sure we needed. We’ve used that conveyor every year since then to load the grass hay up into the loft of the Storage Barn. I quickly got my shoes on and headed out to help them set up the conveyor with the lower end on the first hay wagon and the other end in the loft. This allows us to place the bales onto the conveyor as we stand on the wagon, and the crew in the loft takes them off and stacks them into place. Honestly, it is the best $35 we ever spent on farm equipment!
For the past two days, Rick and I have been working to clean out the loft of the barn. For these many years, we have used only a little over half of the space in the loft because we had a lot of junk stored there. We figured it was time to use the whole thing for hay, so we sent about 11 tons of stuff to the dump over the past two days, then scraped and cleaned the floor, finally finishing last night by sweeping the dust out (and, of course, taking some pictures!). By about 2 p.m. today, the entire loft plus one of the stalls on the first floor was filled with 843 bales of second cutting grass hay – all that we will need this year and early next, I hope! I would have taken a picture, but it is so full of hay, I couldn’t get any pictures to come out right!
My job today was to unstack and help put bales on the conveyor. I handled somewhere around 800 bales myself (each weighing an average of about 45 pounds), and I will admit that I am beat – but the job is done. With only one more load of about 100 bales of alfalfa to go, our buildings are nearly full with the hay we will feed out for months to come – and that last load is small in comparison to what we’ve already put in. There is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that comes with a job well done – and after what we did today, I think we’ve earned it – at least until tomorrow, when we will be back out there, sorting sheep. But for tonight, we rest and know that our sheep will not go hungry when Iowa gets cold and snowy. That is a very good thing.